Smoke Farm! (or) Flamenco on a Wobbly Stage in the Dark!
posted in performance on august 20th, 2008
First let me say this: if my previous post suggests that sometimes Zamani Flamenco is "too odd" for a given venue, there can be no question that this was not one of those times. This was an odd gig par excellence. It was also a cool gig, but there’s no escaping the oddness. Just can’t be done.
I guess the first question to be answered isn’t so much "how was it?" but rather "what was it?" Basically, Smoke Farm is a former dairy farm now held in trust and managed by the Rubicon Foundation, which describes itself as "an experiment in community for Seattle artists, educators, performers, philosophers, activists, instigators and agitators."
This particular event, titled (though I’m still not entirely sure why) "Interstitial Heroes," is the Smoke Farm’s summer arts festival. (Yes, I know what "interstitial" means—I just don’t get what it has to do with acrobats, installation art, a milking parlor, or mock-19th-century snake-oil salesmen.) Anyway, this was, according to two separate (though perhaps not entirely sober) accounts, either the second or the fourth year for the festival. It was, however, the first for the Zamani Flamenco crew. (Some "significant others" were in attendance, though mine feigned death as we were heading out the door and thus was not along.)
(She made a full recovery, in case you were wondering.)
As its website promises, Smoke Farm is about an hour from Seattle, though it feels much farther than that (particularly when your trek involves impromptu tent & pet supply shopping, even thinking for a moment that a biker bar might be a good place to have lunch, and ill fated run-ins with road-raging townies and recalcitrant ATMs). Anyway, once you actually get there, it’s clear that whoever masterminded the Smoke Farm layout did a good job of it—cars are parked away from the main area in a field of 1980’s slasher film tall grass and are effectively hidden from view unless you go looking for them. It really does feel like the middle of nowhere.
The "farm" itself is a (very) short hike from the parking area. There you find a big field surrounding "the milking parlor" (an unexpectedly large open sided structure filled with mystery outcroppings and enigma areas). By the time we got there, tents already haloed the field and weekend revelers were scattered willy-nilly among them. In the middle of the field was a huge tunnel made of shiny ribbon. Really. A bit further on you had the aerial apparati for the circus performers (something like a 30 foot swing-set, but instead of swings there were several menacing lengths of 2" thick rope), and then, of course, the milking parlor. There were dining tables set to one side, and two performance stages—later to become three with the inclusion of our wobbly one.
My little tour of the grounds (and sundry vinicultural provisionings) completed, I settled in (i.e. found a spot on the grass) for the "Circus Contraption" show. It began with "Dr. Calamari and Acrophilia" (evidently—though I swore at the time it was "Necrophilia" … and "Dr. Calamari" did carry Necro/Acrophilia out to "the apparatus" over his shoulder, corpse-like, but whatever) and continued with some high-wire girls that, at least for a few minutes, made the idea of being a menacing length of 2" thick rope look pretty good.
But I digress—Circus Contraption was a treat. And it was followed by dinner—which was MC’d (for lack of a better term) by the faux-19thC-snake-oil salesman alluded to above. In concept I concede that this is a clever idea: here’s how we wash our hands in the middle of nowhere (pine needles, water, cedar bark, water, salt, water); here’s a really long story the point of which is that you now get soup; here’s another long story the point of which you now get salad … you get the idea.
The food was excellent. But the getting of it took for ever.
The upshot of this stretch of "ever" is that Zamani Flamenco, instead of going on at "8:30 right after dinner," went on more like "9:45 right after dinner." Which would normally be no big deal. Except for the fact that by now it was dark. Which would also normally not be a big deal. Except that the only lights anywhere within shouting distance were two high power stage lights pointing up at us—from ground level (which is to say, right in our eyes).
Evidently this lighting arrangement made for a really cool effect from the audience’s perspective. But it also meant that we couldn’t see a thing on stage. For the shorter numbers (like the sevillanas) this wasn’t much of a problem, but for longer numbers—or those that have any amount of "push and pull" in the tempo, like soleá—our blindness meant that we had to catch any glitches, irregularities, or just plain mistakes in the dances by ear.
Which also might not even have been a big deal if the stage weren’t wobbly (and thus conducive to all sorts of … er … "irregularities"). In principle, the stage was well built, but somehow in the process of situating it on uneven ground it lost all traces of stability; no amount of "well building" in the world was going to help it where it landed.
Think small craft on choppy water.
Okay, fine: I know it sounds like now I’m just complaining for the fun of it, so I must digress and assure you all that the whole night was very well put together and run by a lot of very friendly and conscientious volunteers. Truth be told, who in their right mind could possibly anticipate the kind of abuse a flamenco dancer inflicts on a floor? We don’t call Zánbaka "Ms. Loudfoot" because she treads lightly. (Though she does have a hard time navigating sandwich boards—ask her about it!)
And now that I’ve painted this moonlight (it was a full moon, of course) scene for you, how, you might ask, did it go? Well, we lived. And no one tumbled off the platform into grassy oblivion. And no flaming missiles of pine needle & cedar bark remnants were hurled in our direction. In fact, I don’t even think our moving-platform-induced terror was even noticed; the audience (whom I could only pick out in space by the pulsing glow of what I’m sure were tobacco cigarettes) was enthusiastic and, by all audible accounts, happy to have us there. We did a bit of impromptu re-arranging of our set—the guajira, for instance, no longer seemed a propos—but the work of putting (and keeping) together a solid repertoire of music made it so that we could, in the face of what turned out to be a very unexpected situation, tailor our show to the evening.
I think, however, it was the volunteer that ushered our blind selves off the stage after the set that most aptly summed up how we fit into the whole scheme: "You guys were great! That was the perfect after-dinner show!" Granted, this isn’t how I usually think of flamenco (although, now that I really do think about it, it’s as often as not the case), but given the context of the evening—and what was to follow—I think it sits about right.
There’s no out-odding oddness itself.
And what was it, you might ask, that "followed"? Oh … hey, look at that—this post is getting a bit long. Guess I’d better wrap it up! (i.e. you’ll have to search out your lurid tales of interstitial infamy elsewhere! Try asking Z—she might prefer it to the sandwich board story.)
Now you: go play!